What could be more exquisitely transporting than an all-white garden, I used to ponder rhetorically. Back in the day, as a card-carrying Hopeless Romantic, I trusted my life views would shift in some remarkable way if only I could visit Vita Sackville West’s legendary White Garden. Late in the summer of 1996, I managed to get there (the photos below belie their age by the complete lack of fellow tourists in every shot). Since then, I’ve discovered that a single colour garden, white or otherwise, isn’t as easy to pull off as you’d think but creating one is marvellous and, yes, transformative. Here are some insider tips for making the most from the least amount of colour and 3 shortcuts to your own single colour-themed garden.
What makes a single-colour garden fascinating? In the case of Sissinghurst’s White Garden, white was simply the starting point. The reality blended infinite shadings of whites, greys, silvers, greens and near blacks. But by limiting the range of colours to just one small wedge of the colour wheel, shape, texture and rhythm were what really brought the magic.
Framed by immaculately manicured hedges, the flower beds seemed wild and barely contained. Even the strong, limiting colour scheme couldn’t tame the riot of textures.
In any other garden, these sculptures (above) might have been placed like exclamation points in a quiet, well-manicured bed but here, their service was to the greater glory of contrasting shape and texture.
HOW VITA DID IT
Sissinghurst’s present-day Head Gardener, Troy Smith, wrote a post in the Sissinghurst Garden WordPress blog entitled “Any Colour So Long As It’s White“, in which he claims gardeners tend to think that white is an easy colour to use “but in actual fact is one of the most difficult”. He points out that you can’t simply put colours of plants or flowers “together in your head, you need to practically put them together side by side”.
When Sackville-West was looking for a good pairing, he explained, she would cut a sprig or two from a particular flower and then walk around the rest of her garden and hold the stems next to various plants until she found the combination she was looking for.
He points out that, in this way, you discover plant groupings that resonate both in practical terms and in emotional terms. If you hold up one plant to another and say “Wow!”, you know you’re onto something. When you’re dealing with a garden themed to a single colour, this process makes discovering the subtle contrasts of texture, shape, shadings and movement so much easier.
- Don’t get hung up on matching colours. When Sackville-West first began work on her White Garden, her floral palette included all kinds of white from pure white to rich cream. “Silver” was also part of her scheme from the get-go. A red-themed garden featuring one type of red rose amidst greenery would be interesting but if you were to add a variety of reds from deep burgundy to soft brick and added some umbers, fuchsias and oranges, too, you’d have a garden on fire!
- Find your theme colour everywhere. Sackville-West found her whites not only in flowers but in leaves as well, in annuals and perennials, shrubs and trees. If you were to plan a red garden, as another example, you could find the colour in grasses, the stems of shrubs and bark, too.
- Take advantage of time and space–any space. Sackville-West’s White Garden is gorgeous not only because of the plants chosen and the size of the garden but because of its exquisite setting. (For more photos of Sissinghurst focusing on the garden’s setting and overall design, check out my posting about finding your garden’s genius loci in Garden Design Trick: Start Hunting A Spirit At Sissinghurst.) For us mere mortals, a single-colour garden can still be wonderful sans ancient brick walls and castle turrets for a backdrop. Try one of these ideas for a single colour theme:
• For one long herbaceous border
• To add to the peacefulness of a pond or water garden
• For all your patio container plantings
• For all the containers flanking your front door
• For all your window boxes
• For an indoor ‘garden’ of containers in a light-filled room
• And if you think you’ll get tired of your single-coloured garden after awhile, create an ephemeral one that only appears in early spring, blanketing your garden in one gorgeous colour and then fading away, to be replaced by a multi-coloured festival by mid-June.